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Adequate Funding Key to Commercial Crew Timing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The overriding message from government and private sector witnesses at yesterday's hearing on NASA's commercial crew program is that "adequate" funding will determine how quickly such systems can be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The message from most members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in return is that they remain skeptical that there is a market for commercial crew services other than NASA to help defray the costs. Their concern is that the government will end up paying dearly for those services in addition to the billions of dollars it plans to invest in development costs.

The commercial crew program, initiated by President Obama in February 2010, is a public-private partnership where NASA and private sector companies share the costs of developing new crew transportation systems to low Earth orbit (LEO), including the ISS. The systems would be operated by the companies, not NASA. NASA would pay the companies to take astronauts to the ISS while the agency focuses on developing a new system to take astronauts further into space. With the termination of the space shuttle program earlier this year, NASA does not have the capability to launch anyone into space today. It pays Russia to take astronauts to the ISS.

The President's commercial crew proposal caught Congress by surprise last year and created significant controversy.

NASA requested $850 million for the commercial crew program in FY2012. The House Appropriations Committee approved $312 million, the same as FY2011. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $500 million, the same level as recommended for FY2012 in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The recommendations have not been voted on by the House or Senate yet.

Those funds are to help the commercial companies develop their systems. NASA would pay separately for the crew transportation services the companies plan to offer. NASA's goal is to have at least two commercial crew providers from which to purchase services.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier told the committee that if Congress provides the full $850 million request, commercial vehicles could be ferrying crews to the ISS by 2016. At the $500 million level, and assuming funding above projected levels for future years, the date would slip to 2017. During that year, he said, NASA would be paying Russia $480 million for crew transportation services, the implication being that the money would be better spent now on developing U.S systems.

In response to a comment from another committee member that 2017 seems like a long time to wait, committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) agreed, arguing that someone needs to say "damn it, let's go."

Representatives of Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all said their systems could be ready to go by 2015, but only if there is adequate funding. Boeing is working on the CST-100 spacecraft, which it plans to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft also would use the Atlas V. SpaceX is developing its own rocket, Falcon 9, and spacecraft, Dragon. All three are receiving funding through NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. SpaceX also is one of two companies (along with Orbital Sciences) receiving NASA funds to develop a commercial cargo system, which was the subject of an earlier hearing.

ULA testified about the Atlas V, emphasizing its proven track record for uncrewed launches. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Business Development and Advanced Programs, said it could be ready for test flights for commercial crew spacecraft in 2014 and operations in 2015. ULA also is receiving NASA funds through the CCDev program.

ATK wants to compete with ULA to launch commercial crew spacecraft. It is developing a new rocket, Liberty, using solid rockets originally developed for the space shuttle program that were being adapted for the now-canceled Constellation program, plus an upper stage from the European Ariane V rocket. ATK's Charlie Precourt, a former astronaut, said their concept required only a modest amount of NASA funding, but in order to get outside capital, "customer endorsement" of the project is required. ATK has an unfunded agreement with NASA to share data and information. It was not successful in getting a CCDev award because in the round of financing for which it applied (CCDev2), NASA funded only spacecraft and not launch vehicles, Precourt said.

Several committee members expressed concern about the overall cost to the taxpayer, which is a combination of the government's share of the development costs and payments for services once the systems are operating. Although many members have expressed reservations in the past about being reliant on another country for human access to space, the concern at this hearing was that it would cost much more for the commercial crew option than continuing to pay Russia. The United States is committed to using the ISS only until 2020. If the commercial systems are not ready until 2016 or 2017, their utility for ISS operations is limited. Committee members wanted to know if U.S. commercial systems would be competitive with Russia's prices if the development costs are included in the calculation.

Top committee Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) each asked about a statement last week by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver that NASA has an analysis showing that the agency needs to spend $6 billion over 5 years for development.

Rep. Edwards asked to see that analysis. NASA's Gerstenmaier said he could provide her with the basis for the estimate, which actually is a range from $4-6 billion, he said.

The cost for services once the systems are operational will be affected by how large of a non-NASA market exists for space tourism or other potential reasons for people to travel into LEO. NASA's Gerstenmaier confirmed that the agency needs only two flights a year of three astronauts each - six "seats." He expects to pay $80 million per seat, for a total of $480 million per year. The question is whether that is a sufficient market for companies to make an acceptable return on investment.

Boeing's John Elbon and Steve Lindsey of Sierra Nevada stressed that their companies are basing their business case on having only NASA as a customer. If there are additional customers, that would be a bonus.

Elon Musk, founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of SpaceX, took a different tack. He said that the goal of SpaceX is to "advance the cause of space ... not to maximize profit," adding that he retains majority ownership of SpaceX to "make sure the idealistic goals of SpaceX remain true." He told the committee that one advantage of his system is that the same spacecraft will be used for cargo and crew so he would be launching not just two crew flights per year using the Dragon spacecraft, but 6-8. In addition, he said his company has many flights booked for the Falcon 9 rocket, so the emergence of a non-government market for crew flights to low Earth orbit was not as critical a factor in his business plan. The Dragon spacecraft is being designed to carry seven people, and he said he was putting it on record that he would charge $20 million per seat in today's dollars - or $140 million per flight. He argued that is competitive with the $63 million per seat that he says Russia charges. (Russia's Soyuz spacecraft can accommodate only three people so the per flight costs are comparable.) Musk stressed, however, that if NASA wants to use a firm fixed price contract, then its requirements must also be fixed.

If Musk is correct and the costs are roughly the same as Russia's, that still would mean taxpayers would be investing $4-6 billion in development costs for systems that NASA would need for only 3-4 years of ISS operations. The Obama Administration has raised the possibility of extending ISS operations until 2028, 30 years after the first ISS module was launched, but the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have not agreed to that extension.

Safety is another issue. All of the witnesses stressed that it is their top priority. Two of the company representatives -Lindsey of Sierra Nevada and Precourt of ATK - are former astronauts and were particularly emphatic in their statements on that point.

In his opening statement, Chairman Hall singled out one of CCDev winners, Blue Origin, for criticism for declining to testify at the hearing. The company has received $14.9 million so far in taxpayer dollars, he said, and would have to explain its decision not to appear.

NPP: Getting Ready to Go

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

NASA is holding three press briefings tomorrow about the upcoming launch of its NPP satellite early Friday morning.

The first briefing, from 1:00-3:00 pm PDT (4:00-6:00 pm EDT), will focus on launch preparations. The second, which follows immediately thereafter, will discuss the mission's science objectives. The third, which follows next, will talk about the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) that will deploy five nanosatellites designed and created by university and college students.

Mission Briefing Participants:

Andrew Carson, NPP program executive
NASA Headquarters

Tim Dunn, NASA launch director
Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Vernon Thorp, program manager, NASA missions
United Launch Alliance, Denver, Colo.

Ken Schwer, NPP project manager
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

2d Lt. Lisa Cochran, Launch Weather Officer, 30th Operations Support
Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Science Briefing Participants:

Jim Gleason, NPP project scientist
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Mitch Goldberg, NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System Program Scientist
NOAA Satellite and Information Service, Silver Spring, Md.

ELaNa CubeSat Briefing Participants

Roland Coelho , P-POD Program Lead
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Garrett Skrobot, ELaNa mission manager
NASA Launch Services Program, Kennedy Space Center

The briefings will be carried on NASA TV.

The NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) is a NASA earth observing mission that will also serve as part of NOAA's operational weather satellite network in polar orbit. Launch is scheduled for Friday, October 28, at 2:48-2:57 am PDT (5:48-5:57 am EDT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

NASA IG Added to Witness List

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin has been added to the witness for tomorrow's commercial crew hearing.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee is holding the hearing in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building at 10:00 tomorrow morning. The complete witness list currently is:

Panel One

  • Mr. John Elbon, Vice President & General Manger, Space Exploration Division, The Boeing Company
  • Mr. Steve Lindsey, Director, Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems
  • Mr. Elon Musk, CEO & CTO, Space Exploration Technologies
  • Mr. Charles Precourt, Vice President and General Manager, ATK Space Launch Systems
  • Mr. George Sowers, Vice President, Business Development and Advanced Programs, United Launch Alliance

Panel Two

  • The Honorable Paul K. Martin, Inspector General, NASA
  • Mr. Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, NASA


Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 2: DLR announced on October 25 that ROSAT's reentry location was over the Bay of Bengal.

UPDATE: Bob Christy at shows ROSAT's final orbit, with reentry occuring on a path that lies mostly over the Indian Ocean and ends over China. He notes that it was daylight in that part of the world, so it would not have been possible to see the plasma trail.


Germany's ROSATsatellite has reentered. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) said in a tweet that there is no confirmation of debris reaching the Earth's surface.

Reentry occurred between 1:45 and 2:15 GMT October 23 (9:45 - 10:15 pm EDT October 22) according to DLR.

Events of Interest: Week of October 24-28, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House is in session this week; the Senate is in a State Work Period and meets only in pro forma session on Monday and Friday.

Monday, October 24

Monday-Wednesday, October 24-26

Wednesday, October 26

Thursday, October 27

Thursday-Sunday, October 27-30

Friday, October 28

UPDATE 3: ROSAT Reentry Predicted for Today or Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: Latest from DLR (as of 10:00 pm EDT) is that ROSAT will renter any time now (or has already) between 0:30 GMT (which has passed) and 03:30 GMT (11:30 pm EDT). DLR (@DLR_en) tweeted that it will not reenter over Europe, Africa or Australia. USSTRATCOM says 02:04 GMT (10:04 pm EDT) plus or minus 2 hours.

UPDATE 2: Latest from DLR: between 23:30 UTC (7:30 pm EDT) today, Saturday, and 05:00 UTC (1:00 am EDT) tomorrow, Sunday. DLR (@DLR_en)tweets that "taking into account the most recent data, ROSAT will not reenter over Europe."

UPDATE: Latest prediction from U.S. Strategic Command via the Space-Track website is October 23, 02:34:00 GMT (October 22, 10:34 pm EDT) plus or minus 7 hours.

ORIGINAL STORY: The latest predictions of when Germany's ROSAT x-ray astronomy satellite will reenter show it will happen sometime today or tomorrow (Saturday-Sunday, October 22-23).

The U.S. government's latest prediction at Space-Track shows the reentry period on October 23 at 01:31:00 GMT plus or minus 14 hours. That's tonight, October 22, at 9:30 pm EDT. With a window of plus or minus 14 hours, that could make reentry anytime between right now and 11:30 am tomorrow EDT.

The German Aerospace Center's (DLRs) website says it will reenter between October 22 at 18:00 UTC (which is the same as GMT) and October 23 at 12:00 UTC. That would be between this afternoon at 2:00 pm EDT and tomorrow morning at 8:00 am EDT.

The chances are extremely small that any one individual -- you -- would be hit by the debris, especially since the Earth is 70 percent covered with water, but there is a risk. The exact time and place of reentry cannot be predicted with precision. The major piece of ROSAT that is causing concern is its 1.7 metric ton main mirror, which is expected to survive the heat of reentry intact, unlike most satellite reentries where the spacecraft breaks up into many small pieces.

ROSAT does not have a propulsion system, so its path is dependent on natural forces.

UPDATE: Video of White House Awards for Sci and Tech and Innovation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Here is a link to the video on YouTube.

President Obama is on stage right now presenting the National Medals of Science and, imminently, the National Medals of Technology and Innovation. Yvonne Brill is one of the awardees. Watch live.

Soyuz Lifts Off from Kourou With Galileo Sats

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Soyuz rocket lifted off on time from Kourou this morning at 6:30 am EDT.

This is the first launch of Russia's Soyuz rocket from the French launch site on the coast of South America. Its payload today is the first two Galileo satellites for Europe's navigation satellite system. Galileo will be similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and will be interoperable with it and Russia's system, GLONASS.

Europe's Galileo Launch Rescheduled for Friday at 6:30 am EDT

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The launch of Europe's first two Galileo navigation satellites has been rescheduled to tomorrow morning, Friday, October 21, at 6:30 am EDT.

The launch was postponed this morning because of a leak during fueling.

The precise launch time tomorrow is 06:30:26 EDT. This is the first time Russia's Soyuz rocket will be launched from France's launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

ROSAT Reentry Window Narrows

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The expected reentry of Germany's ROentgen SATellite (ROSAT) has been narrowed to October 22-23 according to the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

DLR's website notes that the time of reentry will further narrow as the date approaches, but "even one day before re-entry, the estimate will only be accurate to within plus/minus five hours."

The German-US-UK x-ray astronomy satellite could reenter anywhere between 53 degrees North latitude and 53 degrees South latitude.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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